Blog Directory CineVerse: Shining a light on Chaplin's most luminous work

Shining a light on Chaplin's most luminous work

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Fine wine, a Beethoven symphony, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture – Some things never go out of style, regardless of their age. Charles Chaplin’s City Lights is another good example. Released 90 years ago today, this film exemplifies what it means to be an ageless classic. Want proof? Ponder the points below.

Why City Lights is deserving of celebration 90 years later, and evidence that it has stood the test of time

  • It still matters because it speaks a universal cinematic language that can be understood and appreciated by audiences worldwide – regardless of language, race, or background. Despite the fact that this is technically a sound film that uses sound effects and synchronized music, it plays as a silent and can be easily comprehended and enjoyed even by young children and those who cannot read the English titles and intertitles. Chaplin used fewer titles and intertitles in City Lights than he did in his previous movies.
  • Likewise, it stands the test of time because it showcases the power of pantomime and physical comedy to entertain, without the need for dialogue and exposition. The fact that the film can still be regarded as hilarious and relevant, nine decades after its initial release, speaks to the timeless magic of cinema – even old-time cinema – as a visually expressive medium.
  • City Lights also worth honoring because it’s a representation of brilliant filmmaking on so many fronts. What we have here is a near-perfect work flawlessly executed by Chaplin and his team: the screenplay is lean, limber, and emotionally logical; the visuals are efficiently constructed, thanks to carefully designed compositions, impressively choreographed body movements, and even the most minor facial expressions that are precision-timed to elicit a maximum response from the viewer.

How this film may have been influential on cinema and popular culture

  • The critical and commercial success of this movie proved to early 1930s Hollywood that silent films in the new era of talkies weren’t quite dead. Chaplin would go on to make another pseudo silent in 1936 – Modern Times.
  • The fact that Chaplin bucked the odds and made this film at an enormous personal expense – taking several years and spending millions of dollars, primarily funded by liquidating his stock portfolio, to complete City Lights – may have inspired future independent filmmakers to take greater risks in pursuit of their visions.
  • This has been credited by some as probably the first feature-length comedy in the sound era that intertwined pathos with playful humor – that evoked equal parts laughs and tears. Chaplin was warned that this hybrid approach and delicate balance wouldn’t work, but he proved the naysayers wrong. Today, many successful comedies function across an emotional spectrum in which the silly and the sad slash serious can coexist, and this evolving formula can be traced back to a film like City Lights.
  • The sound design of City Lights is also cited as innovative for its time, with Chaplin employing sound itself as a punchline or humorous payoff instead of words or physical comedy. Consider the yuks that ensue after the Little tramp mistakenly swallows the penny whistle and treats our eardrums to a hilarious series of noisy hiccups.
  • Unlike Chaplin’s previous pictures, which depended primarily on gags and set pieces, City Lights places a strong emphasis on its narrative and personalities, marking a change in style for the filmmaker.
  • City Lights is also noted by some as Chaplin’s first major attempt to infuse politics and social messaging into one of his feature-length movies. By bringing attention to the plight of the impoverished, underprivileged, and lower classes, in contrast to the privileges of the idle rich and snooty establishment, especially at a time when the Great Depression was on everyone’s mind, Chaplin set a template here for funny movies driven by a social conscience.
  • Some notable movies that likely took a cue from City Lights are:
    • The Bride of Frankenstein, in which a hideous monster is befriended by a blind man
    • Mask, a movie about a teenage boy with a rare facial deformity who is in love with a blind girl
    • The Artist, a throwback kind of film from 2011 that won the Best Picture Oscar and pays homage to silent film comedy romances.

Messages or themes of note in City Lights

  • The stark contrast between the haves and have-nots and between spiritual wealth and material wealth. Characters lacking financial means in this film tend to be more well-rounded and spiritually enriched, while the millionaire, for example, lives a lavish but vacuous lifestyle devoid of much meaning. This would have sent a powerful message during the depths of the Great Depression in 1931.
  • Life is worth living: This is no small point that the Little Tramp teaches both the Millionaire and the blind girl, to whom Chaplin’s character serves as a redeemer and savior.
  • The thin line between comedy and tragedy. Chaplin keeps us teeter-tottering from chuckles to sniffles, often in quick succession, by alternating humorous bits with melancholy moments—as we often experience in everyday life.
  • Mistaken and misjudged identities and faulty assumptions. Ponder that the intoxicated millionaire mistakes the Little Tramp as a class equal and the police assume the Tramp is responsible for stealing from the millionaire; also, the blind girl believes the Tramp is a wealthy man. As well, we see the Tramp confuse a hunk of cheese for a piece of soap and assume dominance over a worker rising from a sewer lift until he realizes the man is a giant not to be messed with.
  • The struggle to see and be seen. The Little Tramp is ignored and overlooked by society, but ironically a blind woman pays attention to him. She can’t see his destitution; she only sees his kindness and compassion.

Chaplin’s style as a filmmaker

  • Quintessential elements of Chaplin’s directorial and storytelling approach that he tends to employ throughout many of his films include:
  • Sentimentality and pathos: Some contend that his movies are emotionally manipulative, but Criterion Collection essayist Gary Giddins wrote: “The difference between pathos and sentimentality is the difference between art and manipulation—any director worth his salt can manipulate basic emotions. But Chaplin husbands those emotions in a way that few other filmmakers could do. He turns us at will between the funniest routines ever put on film and a poignant fairy tale, but never plays our empathy cheap. He wants us to cry only once, at the very end, and not for her” (the blind girl).
  • His feature-length films often play out as a series of episodes, sometimes only loosely connected, that can work as mini-movies within the larger film, although many believe he paid more attention to a consistent plot and narrative through-line starting with City Lights.
  • The universality of the human experience. Chaplin was the master of silent cinema because he didn’t need words or talky exposition to elicit a strong emotional reaction in viewers; consequently, people from different cultures around the world – even the illiterate – can understand, relish, and be enthralled by his pictures.
  • Championing the underdog and the outsider: The Little Tramp character functions as a self-reliant, resourceful misfit who is not accepted in society; he learns to survive, thrive, and earn the companionship he needs through his humanistic qualities as well as quite a bit of sheer luck.
  • Chaplin was also known as a perfectionist, often spending much more time and money on his films than the big studios did on their movies. In fact, City Lights still holds the Guinness world record for the most retakes – specifically involving the scene in which the tramp meets the blind girl.

Chaplin’s repertoire as a performer/comedian and salient characteristics to watch for

  • Pantomime: using facial expressions, gestures, and body language without words to convey emotions and reactions. Case in point: The drunken Little Tramp at the nightclub.
  • Physical comedy: using comically exaggerated and boisterous actions or situations that defy the limits of our physical world for comic effect. For example, being thrown into the water because he gets accidentally tethered to the heavy stone tossed by the millionaire.
  • Using objects that resemble other objects: For instance, the streamers that the Tramp thinks are spaghetti and the bald man’s head believed to be a party treat.
  • Self-deprecation: Many laughs come from the Little Tramp trying to maintain his dignity despite his rags, small stature, and laughable appearance. Exhibit A: the paperboys who tease him and the butler who throws him out of the mansion.
  • Humorous set pieces: self-contained, hilarious vignettes that, when strung together throughout a movie and interwoven with a central plot, help form a finished film. The boxing match is a prime example.

Elements from this picture that have aged well and aspects showing some serious wrinkles

  • The chivalrous notion of a knight in shining armor underdog coming to the rescue of a helpless damsel in distress is antiquated, although the Tramp’s tireless compassion, humanistic qualities, and personal sacrifices he makes for the blind girl are virtues that never go out of style.

City Lights' greatest gifts to viewers

  • Possibly its greatest gift of all is the final scene, particularly the last shot, which features the Tramp in an incredible close-up that packs an emotional wallop – a close-up that reveals the challenging life he’s lived and the likely hardscrabble future ahead of him. This is an image of the clown unmasked, shaky but sincere, emaciated but earnest. It’s a slightly unresolved ending that feels absolutely honest, the perfect capper to a thoroughly satisfying and masterfully constructed film. Many movies have difficulty sticking the landing, petering out with disappointing dénouements. But this is without question one of the finest and most fulfilling conclusions ever to a motion picture.
  • Another greatest gift is the diversified emotional tone. While some people find Chaplin's films sappy and emotionally simplistic and argue his mise en scène is too fabricated and controlled, many appreciate the dexterity with which he’s able to juggle physical comedy and sweetness, joy and suffering, clownishness and dignity, absurdity and morality. City Lights feels more significant and substantial because, in a league of lightweight laughers, it isn’t afraid to be a comedy heavyweight that packs on the pathos. It’s more memorable than your typical film comedy because it touches our hearts and tickles our funnybones in a very efficient 87 minutes, telling us everything we need to know about each main character literally without saying a word. As the most exemplary synthesis of all his talents and the most rewarding work in his canon, City Lights shines the brightest among all his works.

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